Welcome to Navy History Matters—our biweekly compilation of articles, commentaries, and blogs related to history and heritage. Every other week, we’ll gather the top-interest items from a variety of media and social media sources that link to related content at NHHC’s website, your authoritative source for Navy history.
Compiled by Brent Hunt, Naval History and Heritage Command’s Communication and Outreach Division
Today in Naval History
On Jan. 10, 1934, six Consolidated P2Y-1 aircraft from Patrol Squadron 10 (VP-10), under the command of Lt. Cmdr. Knefler McGinnis, launched from San Francisco in the first attempt at a nonstop formation flight to the Hawaiian Islands. After 24 hours, 35 minutes, and 2,399 miles, the formation could be seen from Koko Head on Oahu. The record-setting flight exceeded the distance of previous mass flights and was hailed as an important demonstration of the Navy’s ability to respond quickly to possible attacks on Pacific bases.
Manufactured by Consolidated Aircraft Company, the P2Y-1 represented a transitional design. Although still a biplane, its lower wing was much shorter than the upper wing, which eliminated struts and stabilizing pontoons, ultimately improving performance. It took all the performance the planes could manage during the first 600 miles of the flight, as the crews encountered strong headwinds. As night fell, conditions only got worse as the planes entered a fog bank. “Low rifts of it swirled over the sea,” recalled Lt. James K. Averill. “We dove down until our pontoons were no more than three feet from the waves, but it was foggy there too, so we climbed again.”
The two three-plane sections of the formation became separated at one point in the darkness. A searchlight from one of six ships stationed along the route helped orient the crews to their position. Eventually, stars and moonlight broke through the clouds, ending 14 hours of flying through darkness, including seven hours of blind flying through the fog. Better visibility combined with favorable tailwinds made the remainder of the route smooth sailing. As the formation landed and came to a stop in Pearl Harbor, tugs and steamers shrieked their whistles in celebration.
During the interwar years, transoceanic flight was a focus for both military and civilian aviation circles. The epic feat of Charles Lindbergh’s nonstop solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927 stood as one of the greatest achievements in aviation history and inspired others. For naval aviation, long-distance flying was the domain of the flying boat, beginning with NC-4s traversing the Atlantic in May 1919. As more advanced aircraft emerged from the nation’s aircraft factories and were delivered to Navy patrol squadrons, extended flights pushed the envelope as units prepared for long-range scouting missions, especially in the Pacific. For more naval aviation firsts, visit NHHC’s website.
Operation Shingle: Battle of Anzio
Although Operation Overlord is better known, several significant amphibious assaults also took place in Italy in the months leading up to the Allied assault on the beaches of northern France on June 6, 1944. The first was the landing on Sicily on July 10, 1943, and the second was the landing on the Gulf of Salerno on Sept. 9. The third and final landing on Italian soil during World War II took place in the early morning of Jan. 22, 1944. Operation Shingle was a two-division amphibious assault near the coastal cities of Anzio and Nettuno, approximately 35 miles from German-occupied Rome. The Anzio landings were coupled with an attempted Allied breakthrough of the highly fortified Gustav Line from the south. More than 36,000 personnel from a combined British and American landing force poured ashore Italy’s western coast shortly after midnight. Enemy resistance on shore was virtually nonexistent, consisting mostly of sporadic artillery fire. The operation completely surprised the Germans. In the weeks that followed, the number of Allied troops in the area would double in the push to liberate Italy.
For naval operations, the commencement of Operation Shingle went remarkably well, aided by calm seas. A fair amount of enemy mines were cleared from the approach lanes despite the task force’s minesweepers having only a few hours to accomplish their mission. However, later that morning, minesweeper Portent (AM-106) became the first ship lost during the operation when it struck a mine and sank with the loss of 18 of the ship’s crew. British ship Palomares also hit a mine, but wasn’t sunk. Luftwaffe (German air force) anti-shipping attacks were also light, although a 500-pound bomb struck and sank LCI-20. USS Brooklyn (CL-40) and cruisers HMS Penelope, Orion, and Spartan provided naval gunfire support for the few targets that were encountered on shore, and the Allied air forces flew more than 1,200 sorties to seal off the beaches and provide air cover for the disembarking convoys.
Although the operation was initially uncontested, the Germans quickly deployed troops to the region and stepped up air attacks on Allied forces. The following day, German planes broke through Allied air cover and attacked British destroyers Janus and Jervis with a combination of conventional and radio-guided bombs. A guided bomb damaged Jervis, but the ship suffered no casualties and withdrew from action. Janus later broke in half, capsized, and sank, with the loss of 159 of the crew. On Jan. 24, another series of enemy air attacks struck Allied shipping off Anzio. A bomb hit USS Plunkett (DD-441), killing 53 crew members and forced the ship to withdraw. Although the ship was clearly marked, British hospital ship St. David was sunk, with approximately 100 killed. Just as German bombing runs subsided on that day, either a mine or a guided bomb caused an explosion on Mayo (DD-422) that killed five Sailors and knocked the ship out of action. The first three days of Operation Shingle were the costliest at that point for the Allies during its Mediterranean campaign.
Throughout the operation, minesweeping and gunfire support continued; however, enemy mines would continue to be a problem. On Jan. 25, YMS-30 struck a mine and sank, killing 17 Sailors. The following day, HMS LST-422 hit a mine and began to burn. While attempting to help the British ship, landing ship LCI-32 also hit a mine and sank, losing 30 crewmembers. Off-loading at the beach was hampered by poor weather on Jan. 26, and the combination of German air raids and VI Corps’ very slow inland advance began to minimize the usefulness of naval gunfire support. Five bombing attacks resulted in two Liberty ships knocked out of action, along with damage to seven patrol craft, a rescue tug, and HMS LST-366. Fortunately, the weather lifted the following day and off-loading continued. Enemy attacks continued as well. Guided bombs sank a third Liberty ship, Samuel Huntington, on Jan. 29, and a guided bomb sank British cruiser Spartan. Luftwaffe losses were also heavy, and after the Jan. 29 raid, a combination of smoke obscuration, anti-aircraft fire, Allied air superiority, and newly fielded anti-guided bomb jammers rendered German air raids much less effective. Further attacks sank Liberty ship Elihu Yale and LCT-35 on Feb. 15, killing 12, and a final successful attack on Feb. 25 sank destroyer HMS Inglefield with a loss of 35 of the ship’s crew. However, the Luftwaffe proved unable to stop the task force from delivering troops and supplies on to the Anzio beachhead.
Although intense fighting on the ground continued, the Navy’s most significant role in the operation was that of a logistical lifeline. At Naples, Fifth Army logisticians staged trucks that were preloaded with supplies on landing craft, allowing them to roll off the ships at Anzio and proceed to supply points on shore to off-load. Empty trucks stood by to embark on ships for the return voyage to Naples. The whole operation would repeat continuously. This system was credited with vastly speeding up the delivery of supplies and would turn out to be critical to the survival of Allied forces at Anzio. By the time the fighting ended, more than 500,000 tons of supplies had been delivered, a daily average of about 4,000 tons.
In May 1944, the fighting at the Anzio beachhead finally ended, and the Germans withdrew to the north of Rome. Rome fell to the Allies on June 4. Operation Shingle cost more than 23,000 British and American combat casualties, approximately 4,400 of whom were killed in action. At least 160 U.S. Navy personnel were killed at Anzio. Four months of continuous operations while exposed to actual or threatened enemy bombs, shells, and mines also took their toll, and many Sailors were evacuated as non-combat casualties. Although Operation Shingle was costly, it was important for the liberation of Italy and served as a predecessor for the Normandy invasion. The landings at Anzio drew in German reinforcements from across Europe, weakening the forces that were to defend northern France. The long and bloody Allied campaign in Italy also contributed to the success of campaigns elsewhere in Europe.
On Jan. 21, 1954, the world's first nuclear-powered submarine, USS Nautilus (SSN-571), was christened and launched at Groton, Connecticut. The construction of Nautilus was made possible by the successful development of a nuclear propulsion plant by a group of scientists and engineers, under the leadership of Capt. Hyman G. Rickover, at the Naval Reactors Branch of the Atomic Energy Commission. After commissioning on Sept. 30, Nautilus remained dockside for further construction and testing for the next several months. On Jan. 17, 1955, the submarine was underway on nuclear power. After sea trials and preliminary acceptance by the Navy, Nautilus headed south for shakedown on May 10. While en route to Puerto Rico, the boat remained submerged, traveling 1,381 miles in 89.8 hours, the longest submerged cruise to that date by a submarine, and at the highest sustained submerged speed ever recorded for a period of more than one hour’s duration. In July and August, Nautilus conducted rigorous exercises with hunter-killer groups in Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island, and off Bermuda. The submarine rounded out the year visiting several East Coast Navy bases and carrying out a battery of torpedo-firing tests and standardization trials.
The following year, Nautilus operated out of Naval Submarine Base New London, Connecticut, where the effects of a submarine with increased speed and endurance were tested on contemporary anti-submarine warfare (ASW) practices. The study found that ASW methods used during World War II were ineffective against a submarine that did not need to surface, could dive deeper, and could clear a search area in record time. In between testing, Nautilus conducted press tours and hosted several dignitaries from the Navy and Capitol Hill.
On Feb. 4, 1957, Nautilus logged 60,000 nautical miles. It also marked another first for the boat, as the submarine was put into dry dock at Groton to replace the nuclear fuel core in its Westinghouse reactor. In early April, Nautilus operated off Bermuda with USS Seawolf (SSN-575)—the second nuclear-powered submarine—before departing for the U.S. West Coast on May 15. While there, Nautilus participated in multiple exercises designed to acquaint the units of the Pacific Fleet with the capabilities of nuclear submarines. Nautilus returned to New London on July 21. On Aug. 19, Nautilus departed New London for its first voyage under the Arctic polar ice pack. The 1,383-mile journey was significant, as previously, U.S. submarines did not navigate to the frozen northern oceans because conventional diesel-electric boats could not travel freely under ice. The opening of the Arctic to Navy submarines allowed access to the previously protected waters of the Soviet Union. From the Arctic, Nautilus got underway for the eastern Atlantic to participate in NATO exercises off Norway and to visit various British and French ports. Nautilus returned to New London on Oct. 28 where it underwent upkeep.
On April 25, 1958, Nautilus was once again headed for the U.S. West Coast, where it made stops in San Diego, San Francisco, and Seattle. On June 9, Nautilus departed Seattle to conduct the highly secret Operation Sunshine, a fully submerged transit under the North Pole. However, the first attempt was blocked by drift ice in the relatively shallow waters of the Chukchi Sea, and the submarine headed to Pearl Harbor. Its second attempt, begun on July 23, proved successful. Nautilus submerged in the Barrow Sea on Aug. 1, transited the geographic North Pole on Aug. 3, and, after running submerged an additional 96 hours, surfaced off Greenland on Aug. 7. The commanding officer, Cmdr. William R. Anderson, and the crew were subsequently personally congratulated by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and the boat was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation.
Following fleet exercises in early 1959, Nautilus entered the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard for its first complete overhaul. Updates included the second replacement of the reactor core, overhaul of almost all machinery, and installation of new sensors and other equipment. On Oct. 24, 1960, Nautilus departed Portsmouth for its first deployment with Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean. Although the deployment was relatively short, the boat managed to visit Rota, Spain; Valleta, Malta; and La Spezia, Italy. Nautilus returned to its homeport of New London on Dec. 16.
By 1961, the Navy had about a dozen nuclear-powered submarines in service. Nautilus continued to focus on evaluation tests for ASW improvements and various NATO exercises in the Atlantic. The pattern was broken in the fall of 1962, when Nautilus participated in quarantine operations during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In August 1963, Nautilus headed east again for a two-month Mediterranean tour before returning to Portsmouth for an extensive overhaul. The overhaul took 27 months to complete. The submarine returned to its homeport on May 2, 1966.
Over the next six years, Nautilus participated in several fleet exercises while steaming more than 200,000 miles. In the spring of 1966, Nautilus again entered the record books when it logged 300,000 miles underway. During the following 12 years, Nautilus was involved in a variety of developmental testing programs while continuing to serve alongside many of the more modern nuclear-powered submarines it had preceded. On April 9, 1979, Nautilus departed Groton on its final underway, steaming south to the Panama Canal via Guantanamo Bay and Cartagena, Columbia. From there, it cruised north and reached Mare Island Naval Shipyard, Vallejo, California, on May 26, to begin inactivation procedures. The groundbreaking submarine decommissioned on March 2, 1980.
In recognition of its pioneering role in the practical use of nuclear power, Nautilus was designated a National Historic Landmark by the Secretary of the Interior on May 20, 1982. Following an extensive historic ship conversion at Mare Island, the submarine was towed to Groton, arriving on July 6, 1985. There, on April 11, 1986, 86 years to the day after the establishment of the U.S. Submarine Force, historic ship Nautilus and the Submarine Force Museum opened to the public as the first exhibit of its kind in the world. The unique museum ship continues to serve as a dramatic link in both Cold War–era history and the birth of the nuclear age.
Trieste Descends to Extraordinary Depth
On Jan. 23, 1960, the bathyscaphe Trieste made history when U.S. Navy Lt. Don Walsh and Swiss oceanographer Jacques Piccard descended seven miles to the deepest known point of the Earth’s oceans. Challenger Deep, in the northern Pacific Ocean within the Mariana Trench, is a valley between two tectonic plates that is greater in depth than the height of Mount Everest. During their nine hours submerged, Walsh and Piccard observed marine life from inside a spherical gondola and spent time exploring the ocean floor with the help of a searchlight. During the expedition, the enormous pressure at the depth of 32,400 feet caused a glass pane in an observation port to crack. The unexpected setback shortened Trieste’s stay at the bottom to just 20 minutes. Wasting no time, the crew watched flatfish and shrimp swim above the sea floor, tested the area for radiation, and called the surface ships to report that, for the first time, mankind had reached Challenger Deep.
Following the historic dive, the bathyscaphe was overhauled and then conducted a number of dives out of the San Diego, California, area supporting Navy research objectives. In April 1963, nuclear submarine Thresher (SSN-593) was lost with all hands off the Massachusetts coast. Trieste was subsequently transported across the country to Boston, where it began to search for the lost submarine. After a number of dives, Trieste discovered debris from Thresher 220 miles off Cape Cod that included the submarine’s sail, which clearly showed the number “593.” For its part in the Thresher search, the bathyscaphe’s crew received the Navy Unit Commendation.
Trieste was the development of a concept first studied in 1937 by Swiss physicist and balloonist Auguste Piccard—Jacques’s father. World War II delayed his work on the deep-sea research submarine until 1945, when he worked with the French government on the development of the craft. In 1952, Piccard was invited to Trieste, Italy, to commence construction. Scientific and navigational instruments for the vessel came from Switzerland, Germany, and Italy. In August 1953, the bathyscaphe was first placed in the water and later in that month, Piccard and his son dove to a depth of five fathoms (30 feet). After several years of operations in the Mediterranean, the U.S. Navy acquired the vessel in August 1958 and transported it to San Diego, where it was homeported. Beginning in December of 1958, Trieste was fitted with a stronger sphere, fabricated by the Krupp steelworks in Germany. After the Thresher search mission was complete, Trieste was taken out of service and returned to San Diego. In early 1980, the bathyscaphe was transported to the Washington Navy Yard, where the vessel is on exhibit at the National Museum of the U.S. Navy.
- Exploration, Expeditions and Voyages
- Theater of Operations--Atlantic
- Boats-Ships--Other Craft
- Boats-Ships--Nuclear Powered
- Disasters and Phenomena
- Theater of Operations--Pacific
- Aircraft--Fixed Wing
- Cold War
- World War II 1939-1945
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